Sometimes columnists indulge themselves. As an historian and bibliophile, I want to write about history books, and encourage you to read some. But the usual suspects, political, economic, and social history, aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Nor are they necessarily the best ways to see the past. Let’s look at some other kinds: histories of sciences and technologies, professions and trades, etc.

Those of us who read and write for pleasure or a living can start with Henry Petroski’s The Pencil and follow up with The Book on the Bookshelf (there are many ways of arranging and storing books: color, size, subject…). Then there’s Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History, and Tamara Plakins Thornton’s Handwriting in America.

Pencil, paper, handwriting? Well, yes: a wonderfully efficient technology for recording and conveying ideas, feelings, impressions, information. Not put at risk by computer glitches or obsolescence, power outages, etc. (Kids should learn to write as well as type; adults should keep in practice.)

Other technologies, other histories. Petroski, a professor of both history and civil engineering, draws on both fields in Invention by Design, To Engineer is Human, etc., etc. Very readable bestselling blockbusters in a related vein are David McCullough’s The Great Bridge (Brooklyn) and The Path Between the Seas (the Panama Canal).

Kurlansky doesn’t just write about paper. His Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell link the fisheries to other important themes in history. Hooked on fishing (sorry)? Peter Matthiessen’s Men’s Lives depicts the dying commercial fishery of eastern Long Island as ecological and human tragedy.

Still maritime, but more scientific, is Dava Sobel’s wonderful Longitude, a tale of navigation and the struggle to build and use accurate instruments that sent me to Greenwich, England to stand on the Prime Meridian and see Harrison’s chronometers. Her The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars reminds us how much further science, and everything else, would have advanced had women’s abilities been regularly recognized.

Further indulgence: many of these volumes (not McCullough’s) are compactly elegant. My father, who suffered from arthritis, taught me the value of easily handled books.

David R. Jones picked these well-handled books off his shelves.

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